FIRST-PERSON: Thoughts on alcoholism
NASHVILLE (BP) -- New Year's brings to mind many things, but two stand out. First, New Year's Eve is one of the biggest drinking nights of the year. Second, it's not a secret that some of the people who were drinking are, or will be, alcoholics.
An old joke is that alcoholics (or the Irish, as I first heard the joke from my Irish grandfather) call New Year's Eve "Amateur Night."
In light of those realities, it seems like a good moment to share some thoughts on alcoholism.
Views of alcohol among evangelicals
It appears views about alcohol are changing among some evangelicals. Probably more people took notice of this when Moody Bible Institute changed its alcohol policy, but it's broader than that. I've had conversations about it with Wesleyans in Canada, Baptists in Texas and Pentecostals in Oklahoma. All see a shift in attitude.
Many conservative evangelicals have been moderationists for a long time, so an anti-alcohol sentiment is not universal among evangelicals. Sometimes observers will see "Northern Evangelicalism" as moderationist, with "Southern Evangelicalism" being abstentionists, and there is a good amount of truth in that geographic reality. However, it is still a bit more complicated since Wesleyans, for example, are concentrated in the North, and you cannot be a covenant member of a Wesleyan church if you use alcohol as a beverage.
I've always been very open that I don't drink beverage alcohol. Part of that comes from a heritage of alcoholism that inspires this post. I've seen it up close and know alcoholism's destructive power -- yet, many evangelicals have not. More evangelicals may be exposed to the destructiveness of alcoholism if acceptance grows.
I believe this column would not be needed if everyone shared my view, but they don't. So my purpose is to point to a side effect of a growing acceptance of alcohol, and no one should disagree with the importance of this topic (unless you don't believe in alcoholism).
We need to talk more about alcoholism.
After I read the article "5 Uncomfortable Issues the Church Needs to Start Talking About" in RELEVANT magazine, I was more convinced that it needed to be written. In it, Zach Perkins explained: "At AA meetings and therapy sessions, talking about addiction makes sense, but for some reason, it's not a topic most church people want to hear about. Certain addictions are definitely more socially acceptable to talk about than others. For example, it's OK to bug Frank about his smoking, but John's alcoholism is more hush-hush.
"And yes, in many churches, a person's addictions can become fodder for gossip," Perkins said. "However, if the Church were to first approach one another as family, then addicts in the Church might feel safer to be vulnerable about their struggles. Often, they just need to be loved and feel safe enough to know they can expose this part of themselves in a community where the addiction isn't crushing them every second."
A friend's story
I recently was in a conversation with an old friend of mine who over the years had changed his view on alcohol, moving from an abstentionist position to a more moderationist one. But he found that, like a consistent percentage of people who intend to drink in moderation, he could not. He would later call that "alcoholism."
Some studies show that 30 percent of Americans will struggle with alcohol in some way. That does not mean they are all alcoholics, but there are real issues to be addressed. If more evangelicals are going to accept beverage alcohol, we need to have this conversation. Even if the views don't change, there are still many secret alcoholics. So let's have the conversation either way.
Following is an interview with an anonymous evangelical pastor who is a recovering alcoholic. I'm hoping it might help someone see a problem they might be ignoring in themselves or a friend.
Q: Tell us how you viewed alcohol and how those views changed over time.
A: I grew up in the South. I was taught that alcohol was "of the devil" but tobacco was a gift from God.
My family didn't drink. I never had alcohol until college, never partied much there, but I discovered in graduate school that it was good for relaxing.
I was a youth pastor for a while and never drank during that time. I had a hard enough time keeping some of my youth from DUIs as it was. Later, I planted a church that grew very quickly, and, again, a glass of wine became a way to relax in the evening.
Q: How could you tell and when did you realize you had a problem?
A: Alcohol became more of a need than a want. As success and stress increased, the need to use it to relax became more of a habit than an occasional thing. I started to hide it from family. I made promises to never drink during "work time," which of course began to shrink. My family and a couple of my staff expressed concern in a loving way, but I said I could handle it -- a major flag.
Q: What is unique about being an alcoholic evangelical pastor?
A: I never thought it would happen to me, and most evangelicals view any form of alcohol as evil to begin with. However, that attitude has changed somewhat, and most of the church folks I know drink socially. However, I had a temperament/physical makeup that didn't allow me to do that.
I think we tend to view alcoholism as a sin, which it is, but it also has other factors which make it unique, like most addictions. However, the key to change is to change from the inside out. It [my alcoholism] also gives me a special heart for those who suffer from addiction, whether substance, sexual, spending, etc.
I have been able to look into a lot of eyes and say "I understand. There is an answer."
Q: How did the church leaders respond?
A: Very gracefully and lovingly. One leader said, "You've taught us not to shoot our wounded. We're not going to start with you."
People know if they "need to know." I know that sounds cryptic, but I don't identify myself first and foremost as an alcoholic. It's not my true identity.
I am a Christ follower who struggles(d) with the sickness of alcoholism.
Q: How should Christians view Alcoholics Anonymous?
A: I cannot speak for AA. All I know is that it worked for me, and many times I see more of God and more miracles in the rooms of AA than in most churches.
This is an important conversation that I hope others will continue. Here are some resources if you are struggling with alcohol addiction:
-- A helpful factsheet from the National Institutes of Health (http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders)
-- A guest post by Ray Ramos from the Recovery House of Worship (http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/december/thursday-is-for-thinkers-ray-ramos-on-12-step-recovery-and-.html)
-- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA.org)
-- Celebrate Recovery (CelebrateRecovery.com)
Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research (www.lifewayresearch.com), a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. This article first appeared on www.edstetzer.com.